Ever thought about going freelance? Do you have what it takes to go solo? Three event professionals tell EN their stories of building their own businesses.
Adam Jones, director - digital products, Freeman EMEA, Laura Cole, director of LC Events and Miriam Sigler, director of Ways & Means Events talk to EN about the risks and rewards of starting a business.
AJ: I started up Showplans about nine years ago and Freeman recently acquired us. It’s funny because I think most companies set out with an exit strategy in mind, however we didn’t have that. We just planned to build a successful business and make a profitable company, so when Freeman came along, it was a great surprise.
LC: I was originally based with Clarion Events for seven years. I’d started with them and trained with them and then I left last June to set up on my own business. It’s been a scary ride, but it’s all going really well and I’m already booked out for all of this year.
Similar to Adam, I didn’t really have an exit route; I just wanted to keep going and do something for myself. I’d been thinking for a while about going off and doing my own freelance thing. A job offer came up and I just thought I’m going to go for it.
AJ: We didn’t really have a business plan. We had an idea. We didn’t have time to think about those things. For us, it was all about carrying on the service that we were previously providing and building up those relationships that we already had. Our struggles weren’t what normal companies might have.
We always grew organically. You see start-up companies now where their whole objective is to get a first round of funding and then a second in – that wasn’t even on our radar. We just thought about how we were going to look after our clients, how to make more money to reinvest, how to make ourselves more profitable, and how to cut costs to make that profit margin greater to then reinvest. I think to start with, I was paying myself £700 a month because I was taking the absolute minimum I needed to live on if I wanted the best chance of succeeding.
MS: It really is all about relationships in this industry and a lot of it is through word of mouth. Every single piece of work I’ve done has been through word of mouth. It also helps being active on social media too and promoting brand awareness.
AJ: It’s who you know and the rise of your reputation as well. Growing reputation, either good or bad, travels quickly in this industry.
LC: It’s funny because when you want to grow your company, the name is pretty important. I only came up with mine a couple of months after I started. There are so many factors that play a part in the creation of your brand and I thought at the end of the day I’m going to keep it personal and just have my initials, and LC Events was created.
AJ: For us, the name Showplans was exactly what it said on the tin. It’s difficult when everyone has a name that relates to what you’re doing; our competitors had similar names and you just can’t avoid it.
It’s strange because when you start a business you want to do everything and you want to offer lots of different elements because you’ll be clawing at any work you can get. We went in for a transition in year three where we actually had to consolidate products into four services and no more, because it was getting confusing.
ESTABLISHING THE BUSINESS
MS: You don’t want to say no to anything, especially in those first few years. It happened quite naturally for us, which was quite nice and we decided to step back from various different things, partly because we had got a load of big contracts in and we didn’t want to upset them for work that wasn’t necessarily our core market.
Everyone thinks that you are tendering to someone else but actually there is an element of people also tendering to you as well. You need to decide if you want to do that job. We have turned down a couple of jobs this year because we stepped back and realised they weren’t the right fit personally, it didn’t fit into our timeline or it just didn’t feel right.
LC: It’s that sense of establishment, and it’s also that thing of quality over quantity. It’s great to say yes to everything, but it’ll turn bad if you can’t give that same level of service to everyone. You’re only as good as your last job. If you mess up on one thing, you could lose that for the sake of taking on a lot of work that you didn’t really enjoy, or particularly want, or thought you should take just for the money. It’s finding the right balance.
WHAT IT’S WORTH
AJ: With every client, we always say that we want it to be a partnership. If someone is squeezing you on price, you can’t reinvest in your own staff and own facilities and the long-term is that you fail because someone is not paying you enough.
MS: I think there’s got to be recognition that there’s a value attached to your services. Your time is valuable. People might think you’re just at home. Actually, no, my time is 25 years’ worth of knowledge, two-week-long courses training and constantly going to meetings. That’s worth something.
LC: Going from salary to freelance is what I found to be one of the hardest things. But, if a company wants you and your expertise enough, they will pay your rate or they will negotiate. What I’ve learnt is that they’re not just going to say no; there’s a negotiation aspect to it as well.
MS: You get a sense of ownership and confidence when requesting your fee. Sometimes I ask if they have a budget in mind. Ask what their budget is. You also get a sense of how big the company is, the show. We’ve got a formula – like a rate card to a certain extent, which of course you do adapt.
So for example, with a launch show, we take the view that they’re taking a risk and we will take a bit of a risk as well, and we might take a bit of a discount off the show, because we know with a launch how tough it is. And then there are some who are established enough and you just know there will be more work than they tell you there is.
What do you think #eventprofs? What advice can you give to those looking to fly the nest? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.